Tuesday, December 21, 2004


What is the point of software licensing? It's supposed to protect the rights of the holders of that intellectual property.

We can have a debate about what should constitute intellectual property and whether those rights should be protected or not, but I think it's fair that someone that works hard to produce a product is compensated for that product. I don't want to have that debate now.

Vendors of software need this extra form of protection because it's too easy to reproduce their work at massive scale (make an ISO copy of a CD and put it on a website). Serial numbers, license servers, etc. put up a barrier that make it more difficult to reproduce their work without permission.

But, what protection do consumers of intellectual property have? Specifically, serial numbers, etc. are designed to keep unauthorized users OUT, but when an authorized user, one who has bought a legitimate copy of the software, loses a serial number they are kept out as well. In those cases, who/what protects the right of the consumer to use the software which they legitimately own?

Here's a concrete example. I bought a copy of Virtual PC. I saved all of the paperwork that I thought was necessary. I had a shrink-wrapped manual with Certificate of Authenticity from the copy of XP that shipped with Virtual PC. However, it turns out that I didn't save the serial number for the Virtual PC software itself. The Virtual PC installer won't let you install without that number.

I tried to relocate Connectix (I bought directly from the vendor). However, they've been bought by Microsoft. So I called Microsoft support directly (after spending 15 minutes on their website trying to find phone number!) I got some guy whose name I couldn't pronounce and he started asking me questions. Often there were uncomfortable silences and then he'd come back and say something like "Use the serial number on the CD" Duh! I guess he must deal with incompetent people often. Eventually, after a long pause he came back and said "You know Virtual PC 6.1 is no longer supported." Angrily I asked him what to do and he said I'd need to talk to their sales department who he transfered me to. I promptly got an answering machine. Grr...

The story ends with a Google search "Virtual PC 6" serial number. I got my answer in "0.10 seconds" on the second link, though it did make me feel a bit like a criminal. However I KNOW that I own a legitimate license, and I figure if a company is unwilling to support a product they have little claim to enforce it's licenses. In fact they should be required to release serial numbers for products they no longer support. It might create an incentive for them to produce a better product in newer versions.

Let me end with a radical proposal:
License the user and not the software.

I know there are all sorts of ways in which this is a horribly bad idea, but indulge me for a second. I'm a responsible software user. I make my living from software. I'm also able to afford software. Consequently, I regularly pay for software from cheap stuff like CodeTek Virtual Desktop to expensive stuff like Photoshop I have no intention or desire to be a software pirate. License me. When I say "I bought a license to that piece of software," trust me (because I'm licensed) and let me in. Make me do periodic audits, but don't make me remember to save a little piece of paper with a number on it. We could take this idea even further. Make the "user licensing" a centralized system that user's must register with. The centralized system has most known software available for download. It tracks what I've downloaded and makes auditing easier. Actually, this is starting to sound like software subscriptions...

Anyhow, the point is I'm tired of being treated like a criminal! Ironically my treatment forced me to look like one. Maybe I should have another post about whether the criminal justice system actually rehabilitates people or makes them into more hardened criminals...

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